CEO Interview: First Nations Key To Energy Sector Future; IRC Can Help Build Relationships

The Indian Resource Council of Canada (IRC) plays an important role in facilitating relationships between First Nations and industry, says Stephen Buffalo, president and chief executive officer — relationships that are increasingly important for any company hoping to see new major energy projects proceed.

“I guarantee, they’ll have a very hard time going forward without Indigenous participation,” he told the Bulletin. “Now, equity ownership is at the forefront. We understand the capacity of ownership and what it entails, and a lot of our communities want to embrace that, because in history, through the Indian Act, we don’t see the capacity for our communities growing and thriving, and to address certain needs that our communities may want.”

He added: “You saw the Alberta government launch the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation, which provides loan guarantees for our First Nations to participate in projects, and maybe in infrastructure. It has expanded its mandate somewhat, but these mechanisms are required. For a lot of the First Nations looking at these opportunities, the biggest thing is they lack the investment capital.”

When companies do not have relationships with Indigenous communities in whose territories they wish to pursue energy projects, noted Buffalo, the IRC does its best to at least get technicians or leadership representatives from the community to talk about the projects. “The best scenario is that the company is open, transparent and honest about the opportunity, and maybe a little patient with how the transition with transpire.”

It is important for industry to engage First Nations early on when developing a project, said the CEO, ensuring there is proper engagement with the appropriate leadership at the beginning, before any major planning or decisions have been made on the part of the companies. “Things can probably progress from there to something very positive. That’s really our role — it’s to help with that.”

First Nations largely already have long-term relationships with some oil and gas firms, suggested Buffalo. While many may want a “cookie-cutter” approach to dealing with these Indigenous communities, he said, there is no such thing, and every company must build its relationships with every First Nation with which it hopes to do business.

“It must be stimulated by someone within the organization. For the betterment of everyone involved, it’s required that we see this engagement continue. It still kind of happens now that [company] decisions are made and presented to First Nations without initial input. Those are tough to see through. You must have that engagement piece. When First Nations are at the table in the beginning, I’m sure it goes smoother than when told what they must do.”

Buffalo highlights the Canadian Energy Executive Association (CEEA) as an example of an organization that “takes the lead on this relationship building” and helps “close the gap” between First Nations and industry. “We have discovered that if we work together, then we’ll get a lot more accomplished.”

Buffalo’s IRC background

The IRC was founded in 1987 to help those First Nations possessing oil and gas reserves, aiding in their building capacity and serving as a watchdog for an expanded and restructured Indian Oil and Gas Canada (IOGC), according to Buffalo. “We are trying to work with them to modernize the regulations now, and there is a portion where we are supposed to take over [IOGC] and have it First Nation jurisdiction-led.”

About nine years ago, Buffalo joined the council, having worked previously in a financial institution. He told the DOB that at the time his knowledge of oil and gas was somewhat limited, other than the fact he understood it was a “very exciting” industry with strong, positive prospects for Indigenous Canadians, and that it needed support.

“At the time, I thought there should be more engagement, more companies and more partnerships for our people away from federal funding from the Indian Act. And so, I reached for it, and voilà.”

He added: “Right now, with this abandoned-well program, we saw a lot of holes and we saw the deficiencies where our regulator did not enforce regulation, hence we are stuck with orphan wells and abandoned wells, the companies are long gone, c’est la vie, and here we are.”

Advocating for Period 6 extension

Effective engagement and collaboration with the Alberta government resulted in the IRC seeing the creation of Period 6 of Alberta’s Site Rehabilitation Program (SRP) — the First Nations’ Site Rehabilitation Program (FNSRP) — in February 2021. Since then, First Nations and participating contractors have stewarded this program to effectively deploy more than $110 million from an initial allocation of only $85 million.

The council has provided critical technical capacity and support to the First Nations and contractors through the program. Further, in partnership with First Nations, the IRC has trained more than 360 First Nations people from 42 First Nations in Alberta, resulting in 78 per cent of those trained going into employment directly after attending the Wellsite Abandonment and Reclamation Program, with an additional 13 per cent starting their own firms.

Representatives of the IRC recently travelled to Ottawa, lobbying for an extension of funding ($300 million spread out over four years) to Period 6 of the SRP, with proponents talking with various cabinet ministers and other members of parliament during a four-day visit. Buffalo said: “Our leadership from each nation really took the initiative to direct who’ll be doing the work. It was First Nation stewardship led by First Nations, which checked a lot of boxes in Ottawa.

“They want to see that, and they want to see First Nations doing this. Of course, I think we’re the natural stewards of the land. We have capacity now and we want to continue to work. The people we met in Ottawa really embraced this. They loved the fact that we did this program, and that we were the most effective use of that federal spending.”

New Energy future?

As Indigenous companies and workers conducted well abandonment and reclamation work, he added, the IRC saw the opportunities for such energy alternatives as geothermal, lithium extraction, as well as carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) for First Nations.

“We need to get into hydrogen. We need to investigate the area of geothermal. We need to really investigate those things to make sure we maximize on the resources that are existing there. Eventually, we’re obviously going to look at different ways that First Nations can participate in all areas. You’ve heard there are some precious minerals that are required for EVs? Well Canada has them. They’re in the backyards of a lot of our First Nations communities.”

Finding labour is a challenge for energy sector companies, Buffalo said, and First Nations can help fill that gap, as highlighted with all the training that occurred through the FNSRP. While he does not know how long it will take for the federal government to decide whether it will extend funding for Period 6 of the program, he anticipates that there will be a decision by the end of 2022. He is optimistic the government will see the wisdom in the IRC’s request.

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